The title of a new documentary directed by Jody Lee Lipes, “Ballet 422,” refers to the four hundred twenty-second work choreographed for the New York City Ballet. The movie follows the creation of “Paz de la Jolla,” by Justin Peck, a 25-year-old corps de ballet dancer in the company, who first achieved success through the NYCB-affiliated New York Choreographic Institute, and was anointed by the New York Times as, “the rare real thing,” after the debut of his first main-stage piece for the company, “Year of the Rabbit,” which premiered in 2012. “Paz de la Jolla, “ premiered in February 2013, Peck’s third piece for NYCB. Since then, he has been promoted to soloist status as a dancer, and in 2014 was appointed Resident Choreographer of the Company.
As a behind-the-scenes look at the New York City Ballet in action, “Ballet 422” offers rehearsal footage, scenes showing costume and lighting development, orchestra rehearsals, and shots of Peck, alone in a studio, developing steps and videotaping himself with a phone-camera propped up on a piano.
The documentary, unlike others, exists primarily in a visual mode—a reminder that dance is a non-verbal art form. There are no talking heads, no narration, just a few titles (ie: “One Week to Premiere,”) and snippets of conversations.
If there is any drama in the film, it is theoretical– the youth of the choreographer vs. the enormity of the responsibility before him. One scene features the rehearsal (and performance) pianist, Cameron Grant, telling Peck that the inherent on-stage excitement around his new piece isn’t being shared by the orchestra, whose members apparently weren’t crazy about the score (“Sinfonietta La Jolla,” by Bohuslav Martinů). He urged Peck to appeal directly to the players before dress rehearsal, which Peck is shown rather awkwardly doing.
The three principal dancers in the piece, Tiler Peck, Sterling Hyltin, and Amar Ramasar, offer stunning technique even in rehearsal. There is no holding back. They also share a similarly positive, no-nonsense demeanor, clearly comfortable with this particular 25-year-old being in charge. From the director’s side, the harshest criticism shown leaving his mouth during rehearsal is a comment that the movement isn’t “crispy” enough.
Interestingly, “Paz de la Jolla” in performance is shown only for a handful of moments, as if the director was avoiding any obvious pay-off. Peck was still a member of the corps at the time of filming. On the day of the premiere of the 422nd new ballet, the choreographer is shown rushing first from the audience, where he has been watching the debut anonymously, wearing a suit and tie, to the stage, where he takes a bow with the dancers, and then to his dressing room, where he gets back into his tights, quickly preparing to dance in someone else’s ballet.